Shades of NSFNet: EDUCAUSE Proposes 100Mbps Nationwide Broadband

fibre.gif Shades of NSF:
EDUCAUSE, the association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology, today proposed bringing the federal government, state governments, and the private sector together as part of a new approach to making high-speed Internet services available across the country.

The group, whose membership includes information technology officials from more than 2,200 colleges, universities, and other educational organizations, said that a new “universal broadband fund” would be necessary so that “Big Broadband” — services of 100 mbps — could be made widely available.

EDUCAUSE Proposes New Approach to Broadband Development, Wendy Wigen, Peter B. Deblois, EDUCAUSE, 29 Jan 2008

Back in the 1980s, in the time of standalone dialup Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes), the National Science Foundation (NSF) deployed a nationwide backbone network called NSFNet that eventually ran at the blazing fast for the times speed of 1.55Mbps. NSF also promoted development of NSFNet regional networks, many of which eventually figured in the commercialization of Internet that took off in 1991 when former dialup network UUNET started selling Internet connectivity and former personnel of an NSFNet regional formed PSINet and also started selling Internet connectivity.

Nowadays, when the fastest most people can get as so-called broadband is 1-3Mbps DSL from telcos or maybe 3-5Mbps from cablecos, maybe it’s time to do it again. Is this a plan that would work?

As the detailed report points out,

Most developed nations are deploying “big broadband” networks (100 Mbps) that provide faster connections at cheaper prices than those available in the United States.
Including countries with smaller and more rural populations, such as Finland, Sweden, and Canada. Indeed the U.S. is far behind because it has not adopted a national broadband policy.

But is this the policy? I worry about this part:

Because of the high costs of making certain that advanced services can be widely deployed, EDUCAUSE suggested that the approximately $100 billion cost for deploying broadband be shared. For example, the Federal government, state governments, and private industry could each contribute one-third of the cost. That way, for example, the Federal government would be responsible for $8 billion per year for four years. The money would be distributed through a new Universal Broadband Fund, which would be administered separately from existing Federal telephone-support mechanisms.
Shades of the Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF), which spent around $200M a year attempting to promote sustainable broadband in rural areas of Texas, and ended up with not one sustainable project. The price tag certainly shouldn’t be an obstacle; if we can spend $2B a week in Iraq, we can spend $8B a year on infrastructure that will benefit everyone. But just spending money doesn’t ensure success, as TIF demonstrated. However, this proposal would have the funds raised a third each by the federal government, states, and private sources. Yet that’s the model Canada uses, and Canada currently has no faster broadband in general than stateside.

I also worry that a single national broadband network would be an easy target for censorship such as HR3746, which proposed that higher education be required to police copyright for big business.

Plus the even more obvious monopoly problem. If the current duopoly is bad, how would reducing the local options to one improve the situation? Shades of France Telecom and Minitel, which held France back a decade on Internet deployment.

And who is to implement this nationwide 100MBps network? I can already hear the telco lobbyists convincing Congress that only they have the expertise to build it, and since they’ll be doing that, they should own it. The EDUCAUSE proposal includes “guidance from an advisory committee of commercial and nonprofit institutions.” I can imagine the guidance the telcos would give. The report even explicitly suggests providing tax “incentives” for Verizon.

I appload EDUCAUSE for proposing something. And the 74 page proposal includes surveys of many state, municipal, national, EU, etc. broadband initiatives, which is a welcome change from the U.S. myopia about broadband: most people I talk to aren’t even aware that what they’re getting is ten times slower than what they could get in many other countries. I’m just not sure this proposal is the solution we seek.

If building such a network is really such a good idea, and I think the connectivity and speeds are a good idea, how about instead if private investors step up and fund one or more privately held networks to compete with the existing duopoly? And for government policy, how about starting with real net neutrality, which the EDUCAUSE report does suggest.